Bruce Eckle on Reinventing Business

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Normally I’m skeptical of people who make ambitious claims for their ideas for reforming business. Too often, these approaches are long on exhortation and short on practical ideas, precisely because corporations seem particularly enthralled with simplistic approaches and bold-sounding sales patter. The business book section of most bookstores contains far too many works on reinventing business (or yourself as a businessperson) that are a treacly combination of self-help and business jargon, sometimes with a coating of New Age do-gooderism.

This talk by computer scientist Bruce Eckle is nothing like that. He started from the question of why most people hate their jobs and whether it was necessary or useful for most workplaces to be as dysfunctional as they are. He starts with trying to identify assumptions that most organizations accept as gospel, such as the need for hierarchy and deadlines, to see whether they are valid.

This is a short talk for such a large topic, so I suspect some readers will have more ideas about some of the phenomena he describes. For instance, he gives a benign explanation for why upper management will be inevitably out of touch. I’m sure readers can give additional observations, such as too many middle managers are out to do what is best for their career, which is not necessarily what is in the best interest of the company, but they need to disguise that fact from the top brass.

Even if you don’t agree with all of Eckle’s views on reinventing business, his effort to identify and strip away misguided conventional wisdom is a productive place to start.

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  1. YankeeFrank

    I haven’t watched this piece yet but I can tell you that Eckel (I think its the same guy) is known for his incredible books on programming languages. I personally read his C++ book and thought it was really fantastic. It also won several awards as I recall. He’s also very well known for his programming classes where he guides students through exercises on certain language topics that build depth and creativity. I can totally imagine he would tackle a question like this. I fear that, as you allude to you in your piece, the biggest problem with capitalism is that the type of person that enjoys managing others also enjoys hierarchical power arrangements. Just as in politics where the exactly wrong people are drawn to it, business managers tend to be of middling intellectual achievement and curiosity. Truth and reality take a back seat to power dynamics and sports metaphors. Perhaps that can change. All I know is a good manager is hard to find.

    1. Banger

      I did listen to the lecture and found it compelling in many ways. I like many of the currents that have been building in American management circles for decades and much of it anti-authoritarian. What Eckel is basically saying is let’s put rationality, the findings of cognitive and neuro-science to work for us in creating a pleasant and productive workplace. But he does not deal, as you just did with the fact that managers are not, in my experience, mainly interested in doing any of that. Some are but they run into incredible headwinds when they try to adopt the non-hierarchical management style. It can work in IT to some extent, if anywhere, but IT usually has to work for clients or parts of the company that demand hierarchical compliance and ring-kissing at all stages of the work.

      The fact remains that the advances in thinking about work, health, learning and what it takes to help people be happy has had very little effect on most organizations. While a casual style of management has become increasingly common in the U.S. the ideal is always control, control, control. I have seen upper-management try hard to make “flat” hierarchies, increase communication through various IT schemes but, in the end, the managers still create little duchies and the workers still hate their jobs. I’ve been to seminars preaching this stuff and managers nodding their heads and a few stabs are made to implement this but everyone knows its bullshit and things go on. Also, workers resist flatter hierarchies and often use deadlines to push adreneline and a crisis atmosphere because, frankly, they become addicted to it and that mentality becomes a way to establish their identity within the company, i.e., they are willing to go to extremes of personal privation to please the bosses.

      The more guys like Eckel talk and study and create consulting companies and so on the further away we get from the sorts of structures Eckel speaks of. Education is like that. Our educational system in the U.S. has basically been cruising for decades in precisely the opposite direction from what we are learning about learning. I will go further that American education (at all levels including post-Sec) has moved in the direction of anti-rationalism. If it makes sense, then run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

      Still, people like Eckel will continue to try to make sense–managers will nod their heads and meaning and conviviality will be filtered out of the workplace because what Eckel lacks is an understanding of politics and it seriously undermines every single thing he said–is seems to be stuck in the sort of deliberate naivite so many well-meaning Americans are stuck in–there is no separation between management culture and politics, none. If he looked at the issue of power and the need for power (which he never mentions) he would be more believable but would also never get called on to speak at the conferences he speaks in nor have the clients he has. On the positive side adopting rational management strategies on the part of companies on the edge of the American corporate structure may create a cadre of managers who will be there if and when the culture changes from the one moving rapidly towards something vaguely feudalistic.

  2. JCC

    I watched this Sat. morning (I’m a regular subscriber to O’Reilly’s newsletter – it was linked Sat morning) and immediately sent this off to a friend who worked for years as a manager in a factory production environment and is now a Business Admin professor at a local college.

    BE talked about things we’ve been discussing for years, the continuation of feudalism in the employee market and workplace, Maslow’s hierarchy, Taylor’s robotization, and the fact that students get far more value from observing business in practice vs business in the classroom.

    Bruce Eckle is a fairly clear thinker and writes very good books. The presentation is well worth watching… difficult to criticize his overall premise.

  3. Carla

    The presentation was interesting, and I liked Eckel’s proposed corporate hierarchy. Hope I’m not oversimplifying this, but I wonder why he didn’t go where it seemed his thinking was leading: to worker-owned and -managed cooperative enterprises.

    1. diptherio

      He addresses a question about them at the very end (see my comment below), but he obviously hasn’t thought about or studied up much. If he wrote a book about how managers should convert their workplaces to co-ops, I don’t think he’d get many takers. Consider his hierarchy of organizational needs: profit lies at the heart of everything, and who does profit accrue to? Not to the employees. The underlying point of the presentation seems to be that more cooperative, horizontal management structures are better for business, i.e. more profitable. The point is made somewhat explicit when he mentions that offering people more money won’t make them work harder (beyond a rather low threshold). What he is saying is that there are better ways to get people to work harder, i.e. to create more value and therefore more profit and therefore more income for the owners.

      Management culture is one thing, ownership is another. Talk about transforming management is fine, since it doesn’t interfere with the owners’ income. Talk about transforming ownership, on the other hand, must never be mentioned–except to be immediately brushed off as “impractical.”

      Horizontal management and worker, community, member-ownership (or any combination thereof) are what we need to be working towards, imo.

  4. diptherio

    Eckle addresses a question about cooperatives at the end and manages to conflate co-ops with consensus decision making. The Cooperative Principles express a commitment to “democratic member control,” which is a very different thing than consensus decision making.

    In point of fact, cooperative enterprises employ a variety of decision-making and management models because (as Eckles discovered in one of his “epiphanies”) every enterprise is unique and therefore requires its own particular type of structure. What he describes as “holarchy” is not far off from the type of structures that many cooperatives already use.

    Much of what is described here has already been modeled, successfully, in cooperative businesses. The main difference between a co-op and a capitalist firm with a “good culture” is ownership, i.e. who benefits. In a co-op, that is democratically determined, which tends to lead to more equal outcomes.

    One of the unintended points of Eckles’ talk is that management can save on wages by improving the “culture,” and redirecting the money saved into their own bonuses. In a co-op, that tends to be less of a problem–culture, productivity and remuneration are all aligned. Better work cultures is good, but it doesn’t go far enough; we need better ownership structures as well.

    1. Carla

      I got tired of listening to the Q&A because Eckels did not repeat the questions, so I was at least halfway through his response before I could even guess what the question might have been, and therefore have no idea if he in fact addressed any given question in his answer.

  5. impermanence

    Nice presentation, BUT…

    The basic problem in business is that the people who are creating the value are not receiving just compensation, so, you can dress this pig up any way you choose…

    Until people give up on the notion that they can have something for nothing [the entire basis of this and every other economic system], little will change [although people might see relative increases/decreases in the amount of fraud/stealing taking place].

    Work is not about being happy, instead, it’s about providing for yourself [your family]. How content one might be has little to do with many things that have little to do with the company culture.

    Until this basic problem is addressed, and especially in cases where the company has created the illusion of fairness, people will continue to be mesmerized by their company’s prestidigitation that puts a penny in one pocket while taking a nickel out of the other.

  6. washunate

    One of the more ironic parts of the situation to me is that the organizations that need the most stripping of conventional thinking are the ones where customer-derived profit are the least important. Public policy has driven business into a place where access to government is way more important than creating value for customers.

    Indeed, the authoritarianism pushed by our government is quite often why workers and customers both are thrown under the proverbial bus. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

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